Sunday, 30 August 2015

Wargame Review - Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City

Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen CityBy Joseph A. McCullough

Published by Osprey Games

'Amidst the frozen ruins of an ancient city, wizards battle in the hopes of discovering the treasures of a fallen empire. In this fantasy skirmish wargame, each player takes on the role of a wizard from one of ten schools of magic, and builds his band of followers. The wizard's apprentice will usually accompany his master, and more than a dozen other henchman types are available for hire, from lowly thugs to heavily armoured knights and stealthy thieves. Wizards can expand their magical knowledge by unlocking ancient secrets and may learn up to 80 different spells. While individual games of Frostgrave are quick and can easily be played in an hour or two, it is by connecting them into an ongoing campaign that players will find the most enjoyment. The scenarios given in the book are merely the beginning of the limitless adventures that can be found amidst the ruins of the Frozen City.'

When I step into a new fantasy world I want details; details about the world, it's history, it's deities, it's landscape, people and traditions. In short, I want to know the world. No matter what the game, be it tabletop wargame, roleplaying game or boardgame, I want to know the world so that I can completely immerse myself in the game and the place that I'm playing in. Frostgrave doesn't give you much background, but is somehow still able to give me a compelling and fun game in a world of magic and mystery.

The Frostgrave rules, weighing in at 136 pages and including everything you need to run small 10-a-side skirmishes, is a full-colour hardback book of good quality that isn't small enough to feel thin on material and not large enough to make you balk at what you've got to learn. In fact, one of the first attractive qualities is the design and the size, as it's neat and concise and the book isn't large enough to beat someone to death with. The artwork is excellent and very atmospheric, and the photographs of the miniatures in action are detailed and well designed. At an RRP of £14.99 it's great value.

The game itself uses a 20-sided die and is designed with 28mm miniatures in mind, although you can adjust the scales for different sized miniatures. Of course, using 28mm minis ensures that you don't have to break the bank in figures as you can use miniatures from other well-known fantasy wargames you may have, but even if you need to purchase some there are official Frostgrave miniatures available from North Star Military Figures (www.northstarfigures.com).

The game itself is based around a party of adventurers, a Warband, heading into the Frozen City to find magic items, treasure and fame. Your primary character, the Wizard, is the figure you're most focused on as these guys deal out the most damage in a variety of ways - you can choose from ten different schools of magic; Chronomancer, Elementalist, Enchanter, Illusionist, Necromancer, Sigilist, Soothsayer, Summoner, Thaumatuge and Witch, and each has eight spells to choose from. Although you can choose spells from other disciplines some schools of magic can be opposed to others which makes casting more difficult or almost impossible.

Your Wizard is supported by nine others including an apprentice who is able to do what the Wizard can do (but not as well) and eight non-magic soldiers ranging from hounds, thugs and archers, to Man-at-Arms, Knights and Templars; there are 15 fighter types to choose from. Each Wizard starts with 500 gold crowns to spend on the extra help and can gain more gold and items as the game progresses. Kills and achievements gain you experience points, and assuming your Wizard survives the game they can progress on to the next game and earn more spells, items, improve their scores and rise in levels up to a maximum of level 20.

Each game has targets to reach and these take the form of treasure chests that characters get to, fight for and then run off with. The chests have random items and gold which you can then use to upgrade your character and team, as well as buy new items and supporting characters, although you can only ever field ten at a time. These sequence of scenarios form a campaign - there are ten scenarios in this book alone and on average each scenario is about a page long but can last anything up to an hour, taking into account the simple bookkeeping required, so campaigns are very easy to design. In between scenarios your Warband can retire to their Base, where they can use resources gathered in previous scenarios and restock and recuperate.

The die mechanic is very quick, easy and intuitive throughout the game. Want to cast a spell? Roll 1D20 and score higher than the spell's target number. Want to hit someone? Both of you roll 1D20, add your Fight or Shoot skill and whoever rolls the highest wins, and the roll also determines damage. This is all controlled by a Stat-Line, a series of numbers that define a single character. Movement (M) determines how far a character can move. Fight (F) and Shoot (S) are an indication of a character's prowess in man-to-man and ranged combat. Armour (A) is what they are wearing and how much damage they can absorb. Will (W) determines how they can resist certain spells and Health (H) is how much damage they can take before incapacitation or death.

Along with a handy bestiary for wandering creatures in the city and some reference pages to make the games easier, you get quite a lot in the book.

Is it any good, though? Did I enjoy the game?

After our first two games, which were easy to play through as the rules were easy to learn and the rulebook easy to refer to as I bookmarked what I thought we'd need on an ongoing basis, I got pretty well attached to my Wizard Brania, a Witch, and his apprentice Mushroom (don't ask). I also named my Warband members, and the hound we had, a vicious warhound with one eye and a muzzle made of iron - we called him Mr Sprinkles - was a favourite. It was a bit of fun at first, so when a character fell in combat we could cry out their names and go 'Nooooooo!' in slow motion.

However, I got to level four with Brania and I was getting attached. He'd got some pretty good kit and the items were stacking up, and the base I had created (an abandoned inn) had a bit of character.

We'd played some of the scenarios in the book but we wanted to try something different, so my opposition suggested that he'd like to raid my base. So, I created a map and the agreement was that if he won then he could choose one of the Resources I had in the base, as well as one magic item. If I won, it was a simple defensive action and I got to keep everything.

The battle raged and about halfway through Mushroom was killed, and I was kind of bummed about it. The fight raged on and I was in a pickle, and it got so bad that I found myself cornered by both the enemy Wizard and his apprentice - double trouble. I got so badly hurt that I found myself surrendering and asking for terms. Terms? This was a wargame, dammit! There are no terms!

And yet my friend went with the flow and we agreed on terms - he got my best soldier and two magic items as well as gold and the resource, and my character lived. It was then that I realised that we'd roleplayed the encounter, and that the characters were more than simple playing pieces you move around the board. I'd become as attached to the Wizard as I sometimes do with my tabletop RPG characters, and I wanted to see him go on.

And there's the single best thing with this game; sure, it's a wargame and wargames are usually about domination and victory at all costs, but this skirmish game feels a lot more personal and will appeal to roleplayers such as myself. Hardcore wargamers don't need to fear this aspect because it's a great game and you don't need to include a roleplaying aspect, but it was refreshing for me to be able to play a wargame and incorporate elements of my favourite hobby into it. In fact, the system could work quite well as a miniatures RPG; I have now added a skill roll, which is simply roll 1D20 and beat a target number; easy 5, average 10, difficult 15, impossible 20. That's it - instant roleplaying game. I can get all the background details I need from the short story collection, also by Osprey. Frostgrave – Tales of the Frozen City is a fiction anthology that collects "eleven stories of wizards and adventurers as they venture into the ruins of the Frozen City".

Although the rulebook has enough details about the world for a decent skirmish game (and bear in mind you don't have to use the game setting; this works well for any setting) it doesn't have enough background to get a full roleplaying experience out of, but that's not what the game was designed for. This is an excellent game that's fast, furious and a hell of a lot of fun. It enables you to bring whatever you want to the table. Just want to have a big fight? Check. Sling some spells? Check. Swing some swords? Check. Create and have fun with characters? Check. Do a bit of roleplaying? Check.

This is a great game that I'm sure I'm going to be playing on a regular basis, and makes for a great introduction for new wargamers wanting to get into the hobby with it's simple, intuitive rules and clear and concise rulebook.

Highly recommended.